The Unraveling

The tale of the new Nixon tapes.

Abuse of Power : The New Nixon Oval Office Tapes
Edited by Stanley I. Kutler
Simon & Schuster; 512 pages; $30

It is hard now to imagine a time so surreal that a significant majority of Americans could judge Richard Milhous Nixon the lesser of two evils. But look at your history books, and there it is: In the Presidential election of 1972, the electorate took one look at George McGovern, a politician so impolitic he favored school busing even though 52 percent of blacks opposed it, and over 60 percent chose Nixon. But then, voters that November didn’t know that two weeks earlier the incumbent had detained a friend in the Oval Office with the question “How about the milk money?”–and he wasn’t talking about his school-lunch program. The reference was to $2 million in campaign contributions solicited from the dairy lobby in exchange for federal price supports for their industry.       Journalists, senators, and special prosecutors have made sure that even the most ill-informed among us knows that Nixon, this complex man who invaded Cambodia while opening up China and invented racial preferences while singing the praises of the Silent Majority, was a crook. But in 1974, even the Supreme Court couldn’t have proved that Nixon knew about the milk money. Or that he once ordered his chief of staff to “[b]low the safe” of one of the bulwarks of official Washington, the Brookings Institution. Or that he sold ambassadorships at $250,000 apiece. But we know now, thanks to Watergate historian Stanley Kutler’s remarkable book of tape transcripts, Abuse of Power. This is a book that tells two stories: of Richard Nixon’s fall and of the tapes that brought him down.

Both begin in June, 1971. The New York Times had just printed proof, leaked by a disgruntled Department of Defense analyst named Daniel Ellsberg, that the government had systematically lied to the American people about the Vietnam War. Nixon’s statesmanlike response was to fund a secret investigative team to bedevil Ellsberg and anyone else whom Nixon, in his overweening paranoia and narcissism, deemed a risk to “national security.” The most infamous escapade of these “plumbers” was their last: a failed break-in of Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel. They were caught, and Nixon and his aides became suspects in a conspiracy.

Immediately the president and his Oval Office confidants began scheming to protect what they portentously referred to as “the presidency” (meaning themselves) from revelations that would surely issue from any serious investigation of their administration: where they got their milk money, how they used the IRS as their own Internal Retribution Service, why they put Ted Kennedy on 24-hour surveillance, how they forged diplomatic cables to frame Jack Kennedy in a political assassination. “Just keep it as small a little cloud as you can,” Chief of Staff H.R. Haldeman advised his fellows early on–which meant payoffs, from money raised off-the-books, to the hirelings directly responsible for these enormities. They were pressured into leaving the country, testifying that they had done nothing, swearing they had never before heard of anyone named “Richard Nixon.” The bigger the sums, though, the more intricate the cover-up.

N ixon’s presidency limped to its denouement by way of a grim paradox: His lieutenants were soon suspected of conducting illicit operations of such high stakes and complexity that only a senior official would have supervised them. But the more senior the official who was suborned into taking responsibility, the farther he stood to fall; and the better he knew the error of trusting this president to protect him. It was only a matter of time before someone who had seen how things worked inside of the Oval Office would, when called before the prosecution, choose self-preservation over loyalty

       John Dean was the first to break. For months Dean’s claims that the president was (like himself) guilty of obstruction of justice simply pitted his own word against Nixon’s. Then in mid-1974 a mid-level aide casually mentioned to the Senate Judiciary Committee–assuming the senators already knew–that Nixon recorded his Oval Office conversations. Sixty hours worth of reels, subpoenaed by the Supreme Court and carried to the courtroom in a single lockbox, yielded a “smoking gun”: In June 1972, Nixon had ordered the (loyal) CIA to warn the (not so loyal) FBI off its Watergate investigation. Not even offering up his chief aides, Haldeman and John Ehrlichman, could protect Richard Nixon from the incriminating testimony of Richard Nixon. With the Senate shading toward a unanimous impeachment, in August 1974, the president resigned.

The story of the tapes, meanwhile, was only beginning. Congress whisked them immediately to the National Archives for safekeeping. But as Nixon’s two-decadelong campaign for rehabilitation gathered steam, protecting the 4,000 hours of unsubpoenaed tapes became his new obsession, even at an estimated cost of $5 million in legal fees. Only last April did Stanley Kutler, author of The Wars of Watergate, and the advocacy group Public Citizen reach the settlement that now gives us access to 200 hours of conversations classified by the National Archives as touching “abuse of power.” Only last November did Kutler get access to the actual recordings from which he edited Abuse of Power.

Which brings us to the book. It’s been a flush autumn for political voyeurs, what with the publication of tape transcripts from JFK’s Cuban Missile Crisis and LBJ’s momentous first year as president. Kutler’s book, alas, is the most sloppily edited of the bunch. When the cast of The Kennedy Tapes speculates whether Khrushchev is pulling a “Suez-Hungary,” a quick glance at its introduction quickly reminds us of that dimly remembered corner of the Cold War. When Johnson, in Taking Charge, cusses a damning newspaper editorial (a favorite pastime), a footnote tracks down the article and quotes from the offending passages. To read these books is to plant oneself firmly in their worlds.

To read this book, on the other hand, is to hold on for dear life while a tornado of invisible winks, quadruple entendres, and mystifying personages blows you by–unless you happen to know, for example, that the “Hughes” on Page 124 is billionaire Howard Hughes, with whom Don Nixon (Sr., that is, the president’s brother–not to be confused with Don Nixon Jr., the president’s nephew) was entwined financially in a way embarrassing to all concerned.

If the Free Press hadn’t been so eager to join the Christmas rush, Kutler might have realized he had even more scoops on his hands than he thought. Consider Ehrlichman’s reference to a certain “left-wing Harvard professor, [first name unknown] Pomerantz, or whatever his name is,” whose generosity towards the George McGovern campaign raises Nixon’s suspicions. It would have required a minimum of effort, and would been useful to readers, for Kutler to have pointed out that “[first name unknown] Pomerantz” was probably Martin Peretz, now editor in chief of the New Republic–and at the time a left-wing Harvard professor and generous McGovern donor.

To pick these nits is not to deny Kutler’s heroic efforts to bring this material to the public. Already, newspapers and magazines have been filled with careful parsings of the evidence presented here to reevaluate, one more time, the Nixon legacy. (Conventional wisdom watch: Richard Nixon’s funeral wouldn’t have amounted to a polypresidential love-in had these tapes come out in early ‘94.) This is vital work.

But it is not the most vital work. The statute of limitations has run out on these crimes. It may be that the best way to read this text in the years ahead will not be with a magnifying glass, but through the looking glass–as a prism to discern what the political culture that produced Nixon shares with our own. America, after all, elected Nixon–and not despite the paranoia and dread that runs through this book but, in some ways, because of it. What was his appeal to the “silent majority” but a subtle invitation to think like Nixon: to believe that our neighbors might be our enemies, and that our enemies might engulf us?

Bob Dole, who presided over the Republican National Committee while it stood by its man until the last, said it best at Nixon’s funeral: “The second half of the 20th century will be known as the age of Nixon.” May the next half-century speak better of us.